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Home runs are a source of awe and wonder and, yes, suspicion. It's not just the guys who are flashing surprising power who are raising eyebrows, but also those who suddenly now seem smaller than life.
With the season still in its adolescence, let's make the numbers bigger and more meaningful by looking at the major components of the home run – the rate of fly balls and the frequency with which guys are knocking them over the wall. Comparing these numbers to what a player has done in the past enables us to better predict which hitters should be expected to continue or reverse current long-ball trends.
The league homer totals are right in line with the recent, post-steroid-testing past and well below the rates of those carefree summers back at the beginning of the decade. Major league teams are currently on a 166-homer pace (163 in '08 and 165 in '07), a far cry from the 190 homers teams averaged back in 2000.
Currently, major league averages are homers on 11 percent of fly balls and grounders on about 42.5 percent of all batted balls (line drives are their own category).
Before examining conversion rates, let's look at ground ball rates with the understanding that this essential component to home run potential is more stable from year-to-year than even batting average.
The most extreme fly ball hitters (i.e., the guys with the lowest ground ball rates) are Ryan Ludwick(notes) (25.3 percent), Bengie Molina(notes) (25.6 percent), David Ortiz(notes) (26.9 percent, 0 percent homers), Curtis Granderson(notes) (27.4 percent), Carlos Pena(notes) (28.9 percent), Chris Young (28.9 percent) and Brad Hawpe(notes) (29.5 percent). No one else is under 30 percent.
Most extreme ground ball hitters are guys like Cristian Guzman(notes) and Ichiro(notes) who we don't expect to hit homers. But there are some on the extreme end this year who are generally perceived to have power, including Derek Jeter(notes) (61.1), Magglio Ordonez(notes) (57.7), Hunter Pence(notes) (54 percent), Bobby Abreu(notes) (52.9 percent), Michael Cuddyer(notes) (52.7 percent), Adam Jones(notes) (52.4 percent), Alexei Ramirez(notes) (52 percent), Billy Butler(notes) (51.9 percent), Jhonny Peralta(notes) (51.5 percent) and Miguel Cabrera(notes) (50.8 percent).
Obviously, the low end of the conversion spectrum is zero (all the guys with no homers) and that end includes Ortiz (15.6 percent conversion rate last year), Russell Martin(notes) (9.3 percent in '08) and Bobby Abreu (12.9 percent in '08).
The most efficient homer hitter by far is Adrian Gonzalez(notes) (38.8 percent; 23 percent in '08), followed by Chris Davis(notes) (26.7 percent; 19.7 percent last year) and Pena (26 percent compared to 18.8 percent last year and 28 percent in '07).
Now let's mine the data to make some recommendations only for home runs. "Buy," "Hold" and "Sell" are trade recommendations and mean that the following players are projected to perform in homers better, about the same or worse for the balance of the year than they have to date.
David Wright(notes), 3B, Mets: His rate of homers on eight percent of fly balls is lower than Marco Scutaro(notes). It's early still. Wright's rate has increased the last three years – 12.9, 16.9 and 17.4 percent.
Dan Uggla(notes), 2B, Marlins: We can accept the bad average as guys who strike out like him all can hit .180 for six weeks. But homers on 9.1 percent of fly balls (19.2 percent last year with a very high fly ball rate)? That will change dramatically when the inevitable hot streak begins.
Justin Morneau(notes), 1B, Twins: Last year, he was very light in the homers at 11.8 percent of fly balls, right around average. This year's rate of homers on 21.8 percent of fly balls is more in line with '06 and '07 (16.7 percent each year). At age 28, Morneau should be entering his power prime.
Mike Jacobs(notes), 1B, Royals: His rate of homers on 20 percent of fly balls is about what it was in 2008. He's shockingly popping up 30 percent of the time (10 percent last year; AL average presently is nine percent). The difference between a pop up and a homer is about a quarter inch. So perhaps Jacobs has some upside from present homer levels.
Aaron Hill(notes), 2B, Blue Jays: Fine, he's 27. But a more than doubling of his conversion rate (17.9 percent of fly balls) from his prior best year? Unless he's been hit by some gamma rays or been bitten by a radioactive spider, I'm not buying and neither should you.
Raul Ibanez(notes), OF, Phillies: Homers on 23.4 percent of fly balls, compared to 11 percent each of the last two years in Seattle. Safeco suppressed lefty homers only about six percent from 2006-2008, while Citizens Bank Park boosts them by 22 percent. So this increase can't be explained by environmental factors. Ibanez, age 36, is slugging .609 on the road (where he's hit 5 of his 13 homers).